Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 24 April 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

French Renaissance literature

Part 2

The column published on April 10 examines how literature during the French Renaissance passed through four fairly distinct phases. Each new generation of writers developed its own set of ideas and styles. Many important works of this period are difficult to place within specific genres, or literary forms. Writers often created new forms by combining elements of various older traditions.

Francois Rabelais

The first generation included Clément Marot, Margaret of Navarre, and François Rabelais. These writers borrowed the forms and customs of medieval literature, but used them to express anti-medieval ideas and beliefs.

Marot's earliest poems are allegories in the tradition of the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a long French poem about courtly love, which was studied on March 20- ‘Fabliaux, Farces and Morality Tales’.

Margaret of Navarre was the queen consort of the Kingdom of Sicily during the reign of William I (1154–1166) and the regent during the minority of her son, William II. She was also the daughter of King García Ramírez of Navarre and Marguerite de l'Aigle.

She was married at a young age to William, while he was still a prince, the fourth son of Roger II of Sicily. She also wrote several plays similar in style and form to medieval farces, but with a new emphasis on religious themes. She also copied the short, humorous, and often obscene stories of the Middle Ages in her Cent Nouvelles (One Hundred Stories).

However, Francois Rabelais is the possibly the most groundbreaking writer of this generation. Gargantua and Pantagruel is probably Francois Rabelais most famous work.

He uses satire to address the dislocation felt by Renaissance Humanists. By providing an exaggerated fable, comical in nature, Rabelais exposes the extremes of both the Medieval and the Renaissance man. More importantly, however, he brings into question his own ideas of Humanism.

Use of satire

To understand the Gargantua and Pantagruel it is necessary to first understand Rabelais’ use of satire. As a man whose life spans the transition between the Medieval (Middle) Ages and the Renaissance, Rabelais, as most scholars of the time period, had to cope with a huge shift in thoughts and ideals.

Between the changes in religion stemming from the Protestant Reformation, the changes in education stemming from the popularity of great philosophical thinkers, the move towards science and humanism, and the questioning of the universe arising from Copernicus’ discoveries, Rabelais felt the immense dislocation of his generation. He used satire, parody, and fantasy as a means to cope with this dislocation.

Through the monstrous and grotesque comedy of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais is able to ridicule the institutions of his world without necessarily being offensive. He entices his readers to laugh at the events and human thoughts of his generation.

Rabelais mixed in his books elements from different narrative forms – chronicle, farce, dialogue, commentary etc, and peppered them with broad popular humor.

With his flood of outrageous ideas and anecdotes Rabelais emphasized the physical joys of life – food, drink, sex, and bodily functions connected to them – and mocked asceticism and oppressive religious and political forces. Much of their time Gargantua and Pantagruel are occupied with drinking which earned Rabelais the reputation of a drunkard.

"Drink always and you shall never die," Rabelais wrote. In folklore Penthagruel was a dwarf-devil who preyed on drunkards. Rabelais explained that Panta in Greek is all and Gruel means in Hagarene language thirsty, thus his name means 'all-thirsty'. Rabelais' works influenced a long line of writers from Cervantes, Laurence Sterne to James Joyce.

Pantagruel and Gargantua is a connected series of five novels written in the 16th century by François Rabelais. It is the story of two giants, a father (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel) and their adventures, written in an amusing, extravagant, satirical vein.

There is much crudity and scatological humour as well as a large amount of violence. Long lists of vulgar insults fill several chapters. Rabelais was one of the first Frenchmen to learn Ancient Greek, from which he brought some 500 words into the French language. His quibbling and other wordplay fills the book, and is quite free from any prudishness.


Although modern editions of Rabelais's work place Pantagruel as the second volume of a series, it was actually published first, around 1532 under the pen name Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram of François Rabelais. Pantagruel was a sequel to an anonymous book entitled Les Grandes Chroniques du Grand et Enorme Géant Gargantua. This early Gargantua text enjoyed great popularity, despite its rather poor construction.

Rabelais's giants are not described as being of any fixed height, as in the first two books of Gulliver's Travels, but vary in size from chapter to chapter to enable a series of astonishing images as though these were tall tales. For example, in one chapter Pantagruel is able to fit into a courtroom to argue a case but in another the narrator resides inside Pantagruel's mouth for six months and discovers an entire nation living around his teeth.

After the success of Pantagruel, Rabelais revisited and revised his source material. He produced an improved narrative of the life and acts of Pantagruel's father in Gargantua.

This volume included one of the most notable parables in Western Philosophy: that of the Abbey of Thélème, which can either be considered a point-for-point critique of the educational practices of the age, or a call to free schooling, or all sorts of notions on human nature.

Rabelais then returned to the story of Pantagruel himself in the last three books. The third book concerns Pantagruel and his friend Panurge, who spend the entire book discussing with many people the question of whether Panurge should marry; the question is unresolved.

The book ends with the start of a sea voyage in search of the oracle of the divine bottle to resolve once and for all the question of marriage.

Sea voyage

The sea voyage continues for the whole of the Quart-Livre. Pantagruel encounters many exotic and strange characters and societies during this voyage, such as the Shysteroos, who make their living by charging people to beat them up.

The whole book can be seen as a comical retelling of the Odyssey or - more convincingly - of the story Jason and the Argonauts. In the Quart-Livre, which has been described as his most satirical book, Rabelais criticises what he perceived as the arrogance and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, the political figures of the time, popular superstitions and addresses several religious, political, linguistic and philosophical issues.

At the end of the fifth volume, which was published around 1564, the divine bottle is found. The epic journey ends with Pantagruel producing a large piece of faeces, perhaps the ultimate commentary on the subjects of politics and religion which the books satirise.

Although some parts of book 5 are truly worthy of Rabelais, the last volume's attribution to him is debatable. Book five was not published until nine years after Rabelais's death and includes much material that is likely to have been borrowed (such as from Lucian's True History and Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili) or of lesser quality than the previous books.

In the notes to his translation of Gargantua and Pantegruel, Donald M. Frame proposes that book 5 may have been formed from unfinished material that a publisher later patched together into a book.


Gargantua and Pantagruel is named after the legendary Medieval giants who were notable not only for their immense size but their immensely gross appetites.

The two giants were symbolically expanded by Rabelais in order for him to make very pointed and often quite funny observations about the failing of men and to further his own belief in the philosophy of naturalism. Rabelais was very much in line with the humanism of Erasmus.

What that means is that Gargantua and Pantagruel reserves much of its sharpest satirical claws for the ripping up of the highly ritualistic ceremonies of the Catholic Church, while also pulling out the shears to shred the equally arrogant perspective of scholasticism. Rabelais focused his attention on denuding the idiocy of superstitious beliefs regardless of from where they stemmed.

Where Francois Rabelais differed from Erasmus was in his choice of language. While Erasmus wrote in the elevated classical style that appealed only to the educated, Rabelais wrote in an earthy style that spoke to the common French man.

He was especially enjoyed because of his ability to inject crudity and even vulgarity into his tales. While this lower class of writing was doubtlessly instrumental in making Rabelais popular to the multitudes, it must also be concluded that he became popular because of his unwillingness to become too preachy and to avoid the path of moral mongering.

Gargantua and Pantagruel takes the giants as symbols of entities who lust for life. Rabelais himself believed that every human desire and endeavour was healthy as long as it was not directed towards oppression of others.

As such, the ideal of a Rabelais utopia is one where repression of emotions that do not inflict damage upon others is the norm. A world built upon the idealization of Rabelais would be one in which laws were not constructed to interfere with any pursuit of happiness that did not inflict authority upon others.

By the way that he shows the giant in Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais is satirizing two schools of thought. He shows effectively that both Medieval and Renaissance, in their extreme forms are limited. By presenting both, using satire Rabelais suggests that both Medieval and Renaissance thinking will pass and that learning is a necessary attempt to understand the world.



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